Gerald Leslie Brockhurst first met Kathleen Woodward at the Royal Academy Schools in 1928, where she was a model. At only 16 – twenty two years junior to the artist – Brockhurst was mesmerised by her youthful beauty and elegance. In the mode of Augustus John (whom he and his first wife Anaïs had become great friends with, whilst living in Ireland from 1915-19), he renamed her ‘Dorette’: she was to become his second wife, model, and muse, and he would exhibit works of her annually at the Royal Academy, from 1933-1939.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1935, Zeitgeist sold for £1,500, the highest price paid for a painting that year, presumably to W.S. Robinson Esq. who loaned the picture to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in 1936. This extraordinary price was largely thanks to the huge interest in the two portraits of Dorette exhibited by Brockhurst in the previous two years. In 1934 Jeunesse Dorée had set the record for highest price in the Summer Exhibition when it was purchased by Lord Leverhulme on the show’s opening day for £1,000. Leverhulme acknowledged that the disappointment of losing out on Dorette in the 1933 exhibition to the Harris Musuem & Art Gallery made him determined to buy Jeunesse Dorée at all costs.
Wearing a grey kimono-style top, and seated on a brown furred sofa with a simple Far Eastern style chest beyond, Dorette is presented with an unearthly Vermeer-like stillness. However, the serenity is ruptured by the red-flash of her lipstick, strikingly accentuating her voluptuous mouth, which is closed, but in a manner that makes it appear that there is something that she wishes to say. This is emphasized by her body-language: side on, her hands placed firmly down, and above all, her connecting, impatient gaze – it is as if she has something to discuss, with a distracted artist, too absorbed in his work to speak. One can sense the intimacy between artist and muse – an almost other-worldly connection, conveyed by a communion of the sitter’s expression, and the artist’s hand. It was perhaps this moment between the couple, as much as the striking beauty of the portrait and sitter, that the Brockhursts were acquiring when they reclaimed the painting, probably from Portraits Inc., New York.
Of the era, and in keeping with the title, Dorette’s hair is drawn back, to reveal strong, yet porcelain-like sculpted features: her beauty echoes film noire actresses such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Merle Oberon (the latter two Brockhurst also painted). Indeed, many promotional photos of such actresses are worthy of comparison with Zietgeist: they too, often employ simple, plain backgrounds, to accentuate the elegant form of each sitter, while the limited palette used in the painting recalls such black and white studio shots.
Although named Zeitgeist, it is to the 15th, 16th and 19th Centuries that one must turn, to fully understand the aesthetics of the painting. In 1914, after being awarded the prestigious Royal Academy Gold Medal, and Travelling Scholarship of £200, Brockhurst visited Italy, where he was captivated by the Great Masters: they were to have a profound influence on his work. Indeed, the striking greys, the otherworldly pallor, and serene stillness, recall such Renaissance greats as Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli. However, the red of her lips, draws upon influences much closer to home – most notably Turner and Constable, who recurrently employed red spots (often representing distant figures or ships) in their landscapes and seascapes, to draw in the eye and aesthetically disrupt compositions.
Zeitgeist was at some point sold by Portraits Inc., in New York; from the age of the gallery label, one would suspect within a decade after being exhibited in London and Liverpool. It is possible that Brockhurst re-acquired the painting from the gallery - it would certainly make sense geographically, for the couple had moved to the States in 1939 and were living in New Jersey, to be married in 1947.
Brockhurst had a volatile temperament, and tensions within his passionate relationship with Dorette on occasion came to a head with tempestuous arguments. It was as a result of one of these, that Brockhurst attacked the canvas with a knife, and the slashes visible bear testament to the ferocity of the action. Whatever caused such an attack must have been resolved, for the couple stayed together until the artist’s death in 1978.
It was a decade after this that Dorette sold the portrait to their lifelong friends, the Elliotts, with whom they had become great friends in the 1940s, when Colonel Benton Elliott and his wife Billy had been seconded to New York. It is an interesting connection that besides being a decorated war hero (he had served in the Marine Corps in the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam), Colonel Elliott was also a keen portrait painter, who received a two year mentorship from Brockhurst.
In a Christmas card to the Elliott’s, dated 1989, Dorette refers to Zeitgeist, enquiring ‘how’s the old painting doing?’ She also alludes to her writing about her life with the artist – ‘Brock was not an easy person to live with – but I still miss him terribly – trying to chronic[le] the rather unique way of life that was ours – very very difficult going!’. Zeitgeist is a portrait of this life, and, like a living entity, bears marks of their relationship. Created with poetic sensitivity, and later attacked with a volatile artist’s fury, the painting will forever speak of passionate extremes of love and anger; in equal measures, it is likely to continue to enchant, fascinate and perplex viewers for centuries to come.